The Expat: Pedro Peña

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Age: 29
Born: Bogotá, Colombia
Lives: Caballito
Profession: Cook
Book: Eneko Atxa Azurmendi
Film: Una noche sin luna
Gadget: My mobile phone and Instagram

In the middle of a graduate placement scheme at a newspaper in Colombia, Bogotá native decided to ditch media and follow his professional heart. A week later he was in Buenos Aires and started culinary school. Nine years on and he is about to make his restaurant début with La Carnicería in Palermo.

Pedro says: “I left school at a young age as I was a smart kid and I always wanted to study cookery. But I started to get involved in illustration and drawing, which led to a college scholarship. I had an agreement with a newspaper to work in their newsroom for a year. I lasted six months in the office as it just wasn’t for me.

“Then I started working in PR for my cousin and that was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t have time for anything. Everything went sour so I decided I was going to do what I wanted. There weren’t any decent cooking schools in Colombia at that time so I checked out some schools and classes online. I left for Buenos Aires a week later, arrived in the morning and went straight to class that afternoon.”

Pedro had just one compatriot in Argentina at the time, someone in a similar situation whom he could count on for support. He says: “I didn’t even know how to get to class! But I had a great friend here. We changed places together which was good because I had support, companionship from someone backing me up. I totally changed my life and had to find a new level of maturity as I was just 20 and I didn’t have my friends or my parents close by.

Porteños were always friendly, though – people have always offered a hand to hold on to. I feel I’ve been lucky, not just because I’m a good guy but I believe that if you do things right, then it comes back to you.”

The Bogotá transplant in fact started at three culinary schools but given that he made contacts and started working early on, he never finished qualifying at any of them.

He says: “It was good to learn techniques but the most useful part was meeting people. I was lucky that I got work as I had never cooked anything before! I started working for Hernán Gipponi at his restaurant in Martínez with just four months of school behind me, then moved to the Fierro Hotel with him when he opened a restaurant there. We worked together for around five years before I resigned – I had made the most of the situation and there wasn’t much more I could do there.”

After nine years in Argentina, Pedro has lived all around the capital and currently resides in Caballito where he lives with his girlfriend, who is also a cook. He says: “I’ve rented 24,000 apartments, moving every week! In the beginning I made friends with some hostel owners and that was a good way to meet people. So I’d move in with some friends, see how it goes for a month, but then you realize you have to be more tolerant in life – dealing with visits, sharing bathrooms, interacting with people. It’s not the same as living relaxed at home.

“Caballito is a chilled-out neighbourhood, with people who I imagine have lived there all their lives. It’s a good nucleus to access Palermo and Recoleta, and people are happy there: Palermo is more about foreigners.”

Pedro sees relatively few difference between his motherland and adopted home but takes the decision he made to move as an important part of his personal development.

“Colombia and Argentina are almost the same for me but this is a cosmopolitan city so you meet people from all over the world – Bogotá is a chilled-out place. When I was young it was strange if you had a friend who was a foreigner. So to live in a new place and deal with all that – new circumstances – that probably would never have happened in Colombia. Your eyes open up to new things.

“But Colombia is pretty Catholic and Christmas there is very important, for example – it’s more relaxed here. In the beginning I didn’t go back to Colombia for five years as I needed to detach from lots of things, which is hard. Now I go back once a year.

“It’s not an egotistical thing but about personal fulfilment. Yes, of course I miss my friends and family heaps but when you take a path you have to leave something behind, so it hurts a bit, it’s uncomfortable. The idea was to open my mind and end up being mature at the end, becoming a better person. I have a personal commitment as well as a professional one to reach certain goals.”

After several years of working in other people’s restaurants, including opening the kitchen at the award-winning Florería Atlántico, Pedro is about to embark on his own project, La Carnicería. His love for beef began in Argentina and he aims to be making his own charcuterie in house.

He says: “When I left Florería I tried to cook at other places, but I didn’t feel comfy anywhere else – I needed to do something on my own and not be restricted. My current business partner Germán knew me through work and we started to chat about doing something small that didn’t need an enormous investment.

“There was always ifs and buts, then Germán returned from a journey, saw the ‘for rent’ sign, went straight to the estate agent and put down a deposit. That was four months ago.

“Now we’re in the last few days before opening, working with carpenters and running round the city tracking down what we need and finding the right pieces. For example, I wanted a smoker and I couldn’t find what I wanted on Mercado Libre. But I tracked down a guy in Santa Fe, so to tell him about the project and get him to hand-make my smoker was amazing – now, out of the seven days in a week, we speak five of them. I tell him about my life, he tells me about his, and that type of magic and person has helped us so much.”

That said, it’s not always been an enjoyable ride, as he explains. “Workers don’t turn up, times mean something different for everyone, and bureaucracy is a pain in the ass. Love should bring about love – and I’m not a hippy but I do believe that good things should come around. And everything has a solution, and if I don’t think I’ll end up bitter!

Given that Pedro has little downtime, many of his friends work in the same profession. But over the years he has managed to squeeze in some travel to Córdoba, Mendoza and Santa Fe. He says: “I loved Córdoba thanks to its people and the climate. I’d love to live far from Buenos Aires in order to have a more peaceful life; after all, I’m from a small town 50 km from Bogotá. But I don’t think I’d be able to get the work that I love.”

Buenos Aires Herald, November 15, 2014
Ph: Mariano Fuchila

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